“On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.”…. (We see well only with the heart)
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The first beams of le soleil d’été crawled up the Champs D’Elysses like an early morning tide rising along the beaches of the Cote d’Azur. The city streets were littered with debris and the fading accents of revelry that had only just melted away with the sunrise.
Our street, Rue de Berri was quiet and not yet stirring. The morning light was only tapping at the highest windows festooned with potted geraniums and midnight blue wrought iron. A burst of wind, having wandered off the main boulevard carried the stale smell of an urban summer and brushed back our hair.
I had come to Paris with my 16-year-old daughter to suspend, even for a moment, her rapid ascent into the higher elevations of adulthood. We had planned the trip for over a year but in such difficult times, I was tempted to cancel our journey. Yet, instinctively, I understood she was slipping away. In time, she would become a distant speck on my horizon line as she pursued her raison d’être.
Given her increasingly independent routine, we had become passing ships. Extemporaneous engagement had been supplanted by negotiated interaction. Our world was changing – with her universe expanding and mine contracting to supply, support and finance her inevitable departure. It seemed my initials were slowly changing from M-A-T to A-T-M. Paris was perhaps now, or never.
We wandered out into a magnificent, cloudless summer morning. Cafes hissed happily with the steam of espresso machines and joie d’ vivre. Sleep-deprived baristas mumbled at patrons as they laid out baskets of chocolate croissants and pastries.
The day would lead us across the Place d’ Concorde through the Tuileries Gardens and across the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay. After studying Pissarro in art, she was amazed to see the original subject for her semester report, “Vegetable Garden and Trees in Blossom”, painted in Pontoise in the spring of 1877. The masterpiece hung prosaically on a wall alongside Manets, Renoirs and Matisse plein air oils.
We immediately fell into Van Gogh’s 1887 ” Starry Night Over The Rhone” with its glowing celestial swirls of starlight and the warm lights of taverns spilling across a sequined midnight blue river.
I was eager for her to see the whimsical strokes of Toulouse-Lautrec who prowled the bordellos and dancehalls of the Montmartre neighborhoods. It was here that Paris shed any sense of morality and laid bare a world of venal feelings, colors and characters.
We finally fell out into a warm afternoon following the Seine, blown by a strong breeze and the need for motion. We rented bikes at Vélib – the ingenuous Parisian bicycle rental kiosks and service stations strategically situated throughout the city. We biked along the river to the Tour Eiffel, Le Trocadero and along bike paths to the Latin Quarter to explore, shop and lose ourselves in the historic, bustling alleys.
We exchanged more smiles and glances than words during our exploration. As she slipped her arm into mine, it was worth a thousand affections and I had to resist acknowledging the moment. I can still recall enjoying an experience with my father until he would shatter the moment with innocent enthusiasm. “Isn’t this great?” – a rhetorical question that would be rebutted with a superficial smile. To publically memorialize any moment to a teen is to kill it – transforming it from substance to a saccharine platitude. Formal moments were now implicit, having been explicitly left behind long ago like a discarded beanie baby or blanket.
On this night, le grand fete de la Musique- the music festival marking the first day of summer was spreading across the city center. Our Metro screeched to a halt at Châtelet as we climbed up to a late afternoon multitude surging and straining to feel the youth and music of the June evening. In a deep caffeine and crepe blackout, we coursed through the narrows arteries of the Left Bank moving from one animated coterie of partiers and street performers. There was a sudden blood trail that led to a recently broken fight and three arrests. A young bohemian sat bloodied on the ground as police officers attempted to reconstruct the crime scene.
Across the Seine on the the Île de la Cité, steps that fell down to the quays and embankments served as an amphitheatre for hundreds of people listening to an African guitarist. The bateau-mouches ( fly boats ) coursed silently across the slate blue water reflecting a night sky of stars and a palette of colored festival lights, lanterns and lamps in their wake. Notre Dame’s buttresses were bathed in soft pastel light while inside, prayer candles and the gentle chants of medieval baroque music reverently beckoned passersby to sit and reflect. There was magic everywhere.
The Parisian summer night fell slowly – hesitating, and lingering like the gangly silhouettes of teens with their tangerine glow of cigarettes and faces occasionally illuminated with the paparazzi burst of light from a passing car. Three AM. It was the realm of these young vampires – sinewy, sartorial and invincible. They possess a élan for life and belief that tomorrow only happens to other people. While they wait for life to happen at night, la vie is invisibly passing them by day. Their restless migration along narrow cobbled streets and across abandoned gardens is occasionally punctuated with a wild yell or pitched outburst. With the dawn, they vanish –presumably undead in some tiny garret apartment awaiting another twilight.
The following day, we travelled to Versailles – my daughter not much older than the Austrian Princess, Marie Antoinette who would marry Louis, Dauphin of France. He would ascend the throne in 1774 to become Louis XVI. Marie would reside at Versailles and at the Palace of the Tuileries until 1791 when the reign of terror ushered in France’s First Republic.
As we entered Versailles halcyon gardens, the clouds moved across a brilliant aquamarine sky – great man-o-wars casting shadows across fields of rolled hay and poplar trees. Against a backdrop of shimmering fountains, we descended into the gilded age of opulence and patrician consumption. The gardens of Versailles cover over 800 acres. A mathematician’s dream, the property was perfectly symmetrical dominated by manicured 30′ high boxwood bosquets that formed intricate passages and mazes. Alabaster sentinels – statues of mythological heroes frozen in perpetual triumph and tragedy, guarded each path’s junction.
We followed La Croix – The Grand Canal, a crucifix shaped lake edged with footpaths that skirted in and out of the shade of massive horse chestnut trees. Magnificent swans patrolled the shallows for snails and rudely turned their tails and bottoms at us as they scanned the emerald lake for breakfast.
We stopped and lay across the rough grass staring up at the sky. A middle aged French couple descended the mild sloping hill to our left and sat to picnic. Within minutes they were rolling across their blankets like mating water buffalo, indifferent to the great risk to one another or their violent public display of affection. We assigned them names and circumstances that seemed to only heighten our amusement. When “Monique’s” blouse started to hike up her alabaster trunk, we agreed that our lunch would be spoiled if we persisted on spying on this amorous wild kingdom encounter.
We returned to Central Paris and retraced the footsteps of Hemmingway, Pound, Sartre, Camus, Picasso, Stein and Fitzgerald. We tossed back espressos at Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area. I imagined them to be the opaque green absinthe liquors that fueled the conversations of great writers in Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast. We moved on to shadow artists in Montmartre and peruse the Quai booksellers that sat rigidly next to their long green coffins of artifacts.
On our last evening, we crawled up on to the roof of our hotel and watched the golden lights of the Tour Eiffel. Off in the opposite direction, The Sacre Coeur shined like Camelot at Montmartre. We sat silent drinking in the history and elegance.
Just as suddenly as we had stumbled on to Rue d’ Berri, we were descending into a hazy east coast evening, falling back into old patterns – texting friends, emailing and checking the blackberry. As the car crunched across the gravel of our front driveway, my daughter turned to hug me. “Daddy, that was the greatest trip. I will remember it forever.” Just then, her phone rang and her face lit up recognizing a friend’s voice. She ran upstairs as I lugged in our pregnant suitcases.
Tickets to De Gaulle? Expensive. Hotel Lancaster? Very expensive. Sitting on the roof of a hotel looking across the City of Lights through the eyes of your own daughter?